The Perse School

Nudge master shares insights from life at heart of government

27 Mar 2015

Students received a fascinating insight into working behind the hallowed black door of No10 from the Chief Executive of its Behavioural Insights Team.

Dr David Halpern came to The Perse to give a lunchtime lecture as part of our ’42’ programme. The behaviour change expert has worked side by side with Prime Ministers since 2001, helping the governments of first Tony Blair and then David Cameron to use so called ‘nudges’ to achieve their policy objectives.

As Dr Halpern explained, an understanding of behavioural economics is vital for policy-makers as “most policy concerns behaviour.” In recent years Government has become increasingly interested in identifying alternatives to legislation and fiscal measures to effect behaviour change, either forced by the lack of public money to find new levers or due to an  ideology that  is reluctant to pass laws.

MindspaceNudges were typically small, low-cost initiatives, yet they could be incredibly powerful. He cited the example of a seemingly small change to an HMRC tax demand letter which had a big impact – significantly increasing payment. The addition of one line – “9 out of 10 people in your area pay their tax on time. You are one of the few yet to do so”  – leveraged social norms to encourage people to act.

Dr Halpern took students on an illustrated virtual tour of No10, a surprisingly homely place designed to make visitors feel comfortable, and very much less grand than the White House for example. The iconic front door that opens only from the inside, the PM’s private study, the photos on the wall – none of which feature the current PM – and the routine of ‘red box’ evening reading.

A wide-ranging Q&A session touched on the ethics of behavioural economics, and on its many applications, including in the financial markets. Many of the questions posed by students centred on the difference between working for Governments of different colours, and in particular the experience of coalition. In Dr Halpern’s opinion coalition had meant “a lot more people involved, and Government policy-making probably better for it”.

Students may have been surprised to learn that even those considered to have reached the pinnacle of power could feel thwarted. In 2001 his team interviewed each member of the Cabinet to understand their objectives, and were struck by oft-heard variations of “I can’t get anything done”. It is a common belief that once a person reaches a supposed position of power, influence will become easier. But as Dr Halpern pointed out “Power is very fragmented in organisations; everyone has power”.

As students anticipated the end of their term later today, they were keen to know whether Dr Halpern thought 7 May might bring the end of his. But as he explained, while policy objectives change, the science of behavioural insights is here to stay.

Following the lecture, Dr Halpern had a working session with students of politics, economics and psychology. We are very grateful to him for taking the time to share his expertise and experience – a riveting end to a great programme this term.



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